Humans, Not Heroes: Teachers’ Implementation of Culturally Sensitive and Relevant Pedagogy in Music Classrooms

Ruth Gurgel, Kansas State University
Stephanie Goering, Kansas State University
Logan Caywood, Kansas State University
Shelby Goss, Kansas State University
Eli Gillespie, Kansas State University
Alicia Jackson, Kansas State University

Researchers and practitioners in the field of music education in the United States have been intensely involved in examining the deeply entrenched discourses and the resulting pedagogies in school music since the Tanglewood Symposium in 1967. While the resulting Tanglewood documents declared a new focus in the field of music education on better serving students of color and teaching multicultural or “world” musics, still the data show that students of color, as well as students whose parents did not attend college, students whose first language is one other than English, and students from the lower socio-economic quadrants elect to truncate their school music experiences at higher, disproportionate rates than their counterparts (Elpus & Abril, 2011; Lundquist, 2002). These statistics demonstrate that music education in schools is not serving all students well; rather, current common instructional practices and ideological underpinnings of music teachers disengage students in multiple ways, supporting a hidden pedagogy of privilege and racism (Gurgel, 2015).

The purpose of this study is to describe the practice of six music teachers in the United States who maintain proportionate membership of minoritized populations in their classrooms and align their instructional pedagogy with the six prongs of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy or CRP (Ladson-Billings, 1994). The researchers visited each teacher’s classroom, interviewing them and observing their pedagogical practices. The six teachers described in this study currently work in high school and elementary school settings in the Bronx, Los Alamitos, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. Each of the teachers has different upbringings, musical experiences, teaching styles, and ensembles. They are different ages and have different years of teaching experience. However, they have ideological similarities. They believe that musical excellence is achievable for all students through both western and non-western pedagogies. They integrate their students’ musical experiences, knowledge, and skills into the classroom; they design and implement ensembles and courses that match their students’ interests. They believe they are continual learners, refusing to coast on past successes. They are intentional teachers. They use the moments before school, during class, and after school to provide their students with spaces to connect, receive individual instruction from expert teachers, mentor younger students, and practice on their own. They admit their mistakes and learn from them. They believe that they are no more important than any student in their classroom, resulting in a pedagogy that invites the students to co-create the musical learning. They have no intent to leave the community and school in which they work; they are fully integrated into their communities.

This research paints multiple pictures of how Culturally Relevant Pedagogy can be applied inside the music classroom. An analysis is provided that includes evidence of the high level of intercultural competence achieved by each teacher (Hammer, 2012). We provide narratives for teacher educators with strategies, practices, and understandings that have guided the teacher participants in their classrooms. This analysis is useful for teacher educators, practicing teachers, and pre-service teachers as they work to develop and promote intercultural competence and effectiveness in the music classroom.


Elpus, K., & Abril, C. R. (2011). High school music ensemble students in the United States: A demographic profile. Journal of Research in Music Education 59, 128-145.

Gurgel, R. E. (2016). Taught by the students: Culturally relevant pedagogy and deep engagement in music education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hammer, M. (2012). The intercultural development inventory: A new frontier in assessment and development of intercultural competence.” In M. Vande Berg, R. M. Paige, & K. H. Lou (Eds.), Student Learning Abroad (pp. 115-136.). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994.

Lundquist, B. R. (2002). Music, culture, curriculum, and instruction. In R. Colwell & C. P. Richardson (Eds.), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning. New York: Oxford University Press.